Performing Morton Feldman’s String Quartet #2

An Interview with Tom Chiu and Max Mandel of the Flux Quartet

Ryan Dohoney


Read the full article in DISSONANCE 116 (December 2011).


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Ryan Dohoney (RD): In one of Feldman’s interviews at Darmstadt in 1984 he talks about the modules and shapes and repetitions giving him a complicated rhythmic structure without having syncopation. You mentioned that you aren’t robots, but do you feel a sense of groove or synching up in a machine-like way? Or do you try to be more disassociated from one another?


Max Mandel (MM): In the module sections [marked by repeat signs] we do talk about composite rhythms, we try to figure out what the overall rhythm is and play like one organism. There are a couple of sections that have a straight-ahead rhythmic grooviness, but they’re pretty rare. Usually Feldman writes in a little hesitation, or has a tie over the bar line. To us, that means he doesn’t really want it to sound syncopated or groovy.


Tom Chiu (TC): It should just sound off balance.


MM: There’s a 5/8 section with a clear groove, but I’d say that syncopation comes out as something we bring out.


TC: Another way to take the point further is to say that there aren’t a lot of upbeats, but with the way we approach it there are a lot of displaced downbeats.


MM: We’re always trying to imagine what Feldman was thinking in his head and how the audience is going to perceive it. We’re never looking at whether there’s a bar line, or a downbeat, or a pick-up. That’s the last thing that occurs to us. We do a lot of rewriting for the purpose of organization. For example, if he’s got an eighth-note rest on a downbeat, we don’t get the feeling of an upbeat.


TC: Say on page 13, the second system is one chord. We just play the chord; we don’t try to evoke the feeling that it’s coming off of an eighth-note rest.


MM: The repetition and the length of the rests say to us that he wants to hear the beginning of the chord.


TC: But what’s important is the duration of each sound event and you add the rests to the whole thing along with the dynamic difference. So its not just “quarter note, quarter note.” It’s off balance.


MM: There’s this weird western classical music thing — a feeling of anxiety as you come off the beat. The piece has so little anxiety in it that we want to take the anxiety out of it. When cuing, we breathe in on an eighth note which allows us to count the rhythm internally from that note.


RD: I like that you describe it as taking the anxiety out of it; as that’s something of the emotional narrative of the piece. The beginning material is so anxious and that affect is something you might resist throughout the piece, its return.


MM: That’s the thing. The beginning is in 3/8 but the gesture is in two. We have to make the decision to play off of three or to play in two. The truth is that the audience is going to hear two. It doesn’t make sense for us to play it feeling three.


RD: In addition to the rhythmic difficulty, there’s the added issue of Feldman’s idiosyncratic microtonal notation. How do you negotiate that?


MM: We’ve discussed it a lot. It’s pretty frustrating because it’s not very clear. We discovered that what a sharp means versus what a flat means is also very much about a tradition of string playing in New York City in the 1970s.


RD: Yes, this is something you’ve identified in Karen Phillips’ [the first performer of “The Viola in My Life” and “Rothko Chapel”] playing, a tendency to accentuate the sharpness of leading tones as well as play with a shimmering vibrato. Both are techniques she would have learned from her teacher Walter Trampler (who played on Feldman’s first recording in 1959).


MM: Yes, there is this American style of string playing where a sharp is sharper and a flat is flatter. But when you get into a string quartet you can’t use that kind of intonation to play in tune together.


TC: Recently I was reading Feldman’s Darmstadt lecture after Kronos premiered this piece and he did say something like, “I write so many minor seconds that they sound so wide.” And that “the pitches move really slowly for me.” Because it’s so slow the intervals sound so wide.


MM: I love it when the piece sounds really in tune, to be in that sound.


TC: There are real sonorities there.


MM: The truth is, what happens is what happens over the course of the performance. Whether he intended this or not, our strings go out of tune, we get tired, natural harmonics start to sound really funky. However, they sound less funky if you’ve been there a while, as people’s ears have adjusted to a whole different sound world. It’s some kind of crazy magic. It manages to get more out of tune as the piece goes, but sweeter. We tune stuff, but there’s only so much we can do.


RD: I was comparing the Ives Ensemble recording with yours, Tom, and was struck by how different they sound, your sonorities ring much stranger from the very beginning. Their performance is also short, about 4 hours and 45 minutes.


MM: I don’t know how they pulled that off. We’ve been settling into something of a groove at 5 hours 45 minutes. No matter what we do now. We did tighten some things up, places where we thought we were getting lazy or indulging ourselves. We checked back with the metronome.


TC: I don’t know how the piece could be less than five and a half hours.


MM: If we played a very precise performance it could be five and a half hours.




This article has been published in DISSONANCE 116 (December 2011).

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